Tuning Up - Autumn 2023

The Interdisciplinarian

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Evelyn Fox Keller has spent a lifetime in different scientific fields, while managing to shatter a glass ceiling or two

By Sandra M. Gilbert | September 5, 2023
Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

We all know what a literary critic is: a trained reader who examines, analyzes, and appraises the texts of all kinds of writers. But what exactly is a science critic? Wouldn’t that be a trained practitioner who investigates and sometimes assesses the assumptions and accomplishments of scientists? Of course, there are countless science writers, but I believe that Evelyn Fox Keller is one of our foremost science critics: a brilliant professional with an undergraduate degree from Brandeis and a PhD from Harvard who explores physics, mathematics, molecular biology, and genetics from a deeply learned insider’s point of view. She is now a professor emerita at MIT. She also happens to be one of my oldest friends.

Evelyn was mentored in her youth by the eminent nuclear physicist Leo Szilard and introduced to molecular biology by her older brother, Maury Fox. Along the way, she worked at the famous Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and other distinguished institutions; wrote, edited, or coedited more than 14 books; and received honorary doctorates from all over the world. And although her PhD is in theoretical physics, she has spent her career “border crossing,” as she puts it, moving with ease between disciplines, from physics to biology, from feminist theory to the history of science, all while raising a son and a daughter as a single mother.

In 1983, Evelyn published A Feeling for the Organism, a biography of the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, in which she sought to differentiate McClintock’s approach to her field from that of more “reductionist” biologists. But Evelyn is perhaps best known in the feminist community for her important Reflections on Gender and Science, published in 1985 as the women’s movement was reaching high-octane intensity. This seminal work excavated philosophical assumptions about femininity and masculinity that had barred women from serious scientific careers for decades. Through a series of essays on Plato, Aristotle, alchemy, and modern science, she analyzed the linguistic metaphors that defined the passivity of “Mother Nature”—that is, the feminine material world—while also gendering the aggressive, implicitly masculine gaze of the scientist. “The same cultural tradition,” she wrote elsewhere, “that names rational, objective and transcendent as male, and irrational, subjective, and immanent as female, also, and simultaneously, names the scientific mind as male, and material nature as female.” It was this tradition that Evelyn has fought so hard to break down.

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